by R. Daniel Mann
Question: I found a discarded wooden box, which someone who sold their apartment left outside a storage room. The neighbors want to throw it out. After opening it, I could tell it was used to store a small sefer Torah. What should to do with it?
Answer: The gemara (Megilla 26b) says that a tashmish kedusha (something that serves holy [scrolls]) is holy and needs geniza when one no longer uses it. One of its examples is a maktara, which Rashi translates as the chest in which a sefer Torah is held. Usually an object must come in direct contact with a sefer Torah to be its tashmish (ibid.). Since a sefer Torah’s parchment rarely touches the aron, why should it be considered a tashmish kedusha? Some explain that it is enough that it happens on rare occasion (see sources in Yabia Omer VIII, OC 19). However, many accept the following distinction. If the tashmish provides kavod for the kedusha, it is a tashmish kedusha; if it is (only) for shemira (protection), it is not a tashmish (Rama, Orach Chayim 154:3 based on Ohr Zarua, Shut 745).
How does one know if an aron is for shemira or for kavod? The Mor U’ketzia (OC 154) says that if an aron kodesh is built into a wall, it is for shemira; if it is movable, it is for kavod, as the Ohr Zarua seems to indicate. Presumably, an aron does not have to be fancy to be for kavod, as wanting to have the sefer Torah covered is part of its kavod. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer ibid.) cites those who say that, if the parchment never touches the aron kodesh, we need to decide practically whether it is for shemira or kavod. (He leans toward leniency regarding a large aron with a strong lock; your case might be different.) Still the Mishna Berura (154:9) indicates that the standard movable aron is a tashmish kedusha, and this would be our basic assumption regarding the aron you discuss (see also Tzedaka U’mishpat 15:18-19).
One can make a t’nai (condition) by which kedusha will not take effect on a tashmish kedusha (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 8). Can one entertain leniency by assuming that this is what happened before this abandoned aron kodesh was used? Actually, even if one makes a condition, the object does not lose all special status. The Mishna Berura (154:34) says that while one may use it for mundane things, he many not disgrace it. We find a machloket regarding objects used in a mitzva (e.g., tzitzit), which do not require geniza (Megilla 26b). The Shulchan Aruch (OC 21:1) allows throwing them in the garbage, but the Rama (ad loc.) is somewhat more stringent (ad loc.). The halachic situation would be similar according to the lenient opinions/cases discussed above.
While we cannot exhaust all the cases and analyses, we will provide some suggestions in order of halachic preferability. The obvious suggestions are to try to find someone to use the aron for a sefer Torah or find the owner and ask him to take it.
Geniza is certainly a respectful solution without problems. If the aron is going to be permanently “retired,” it is permitted to respectfully separate the pieces of wood, so it takes less space.
Many poskim permit using an aron for storing regular sifrei kodesh. The Taz (OC 154:7) says that while there is a rule that one may not lower the level of sanctity of the use of a holy object (Megilla 25b), we prefer a lower usage related to sanctity to geniza. While the Taz’s opinion has to fend off several questions, many support it regarding an object that only serves an object of sanctity (see Yabia Omer ibid.). In a case like ours, where there are other grounds for leniency, this is a good option.
If one nominally sells the aron and uses the small amount of proceeds to adorn a sefer Torah, many posit the aron loses its kedusha status (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 153:9; Orach Mishpat 34; Tzitz Eliezer VII:7). The buyer should just be careful not to disgrace it (see Shulchan Aruch ibid.). It is questionable whether putting it in the garbage is a disgrace, and wrapping it first improves matters. Doing that without first selling it is a last resort one should try to avoid.